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Equipped with biometrics and spatial scans, cars are now guzzling data

But a US senator is asking Tesla and other automakers about how they handle it
Equipped with biometrics and spatial scans, cars are now guzzling data

Extensive data collection can now be assumed in most car models, as vehicles become what U.S. Senator Edward Markey calls, in a recent missive to automakers, “high-tech computers on wheels” that “produce vast amounts of data on drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and other motorists, creating the potential for severe privacy violations.”

Tesla granted face biometrics driver monitoring patent

The iconic electric car maker has been awarded a U.S. patent for a driver facial recognition system that says a personalized hello, adjusts temperature and audio settings based on a user profile, and will call 911 and go to the nearest hospital if a driver is unresponsive.

On the social media network X, which Tesla owner Elon Musk purchased as Twitter before rebranding, news of the patent was posted by a user called The Cybertruck Guy, whose account is dedicated to the development and launch of Tesla’s boxy silver Cybertruck. The patent itself describes a “personalized system and method for a vehicle based on the spatial location of vehicle occupants and portions of their body.” In other words, it not only scans facial biometrics but also captures and measures the “Z-heights of a plurality of body portions” and customizes in-vehicle systems for spatial optimization, centering audio playback and angling HVAC vents for unique passengers.

It also illustrates the process by which a driver is assessed to be in a “normal state” and the series of decisions that trigger emergency alert signals and, if possible, automated travel to a medical facility.

Tesla is not the only company in the world integrating biometric hardware and software into vehicles. In Gauteng, South Africa, the security firm Eagle Eye Defense (EED) is offering fingerprint biometrics for drivers, partly as a way to prevent car-jackings, of which there are nearly 60 a day in the country. A sensor placed in a discreet location known only to the driver will start the car with a fingerprint scan. If someone other than the owner tries to start the car, alerts are triggered.

In its report on EED’s technology, TimesLive notes that major luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have already integrated biometrics for security and select payments.

Concerns over how much cars know already

Both in government and for some socially-focused businesses, there are those who worry about what automakers are doing with the vast amounts of data they collect. U.S. Senator Edward Markey has sent a letter to major U.S. and international automakers outlining the potential for severe privacy violations that come with smarter cars.

“This data could reveal sensitive personal information, including location history and driving behavior, and can help data brokers develop detailed data profiles on users,” his letter says. “In fact, a recent report from Mozilla revealed unfettered data collection and privacy intrusions across huge swaths of the automobile industry. These business practices must end.” Markey calls on the CEOs of Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Stellantis, Subaru, Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, and Tesla (yes, that guy) to answer a series of questions about their data collection and privacy standards. His queries include “does your company provide notice to vehicle owners or users of its data practices?” and “has your company ever provided to law enforcement personal information collected by a vehicle?”

“Although certain data collection and sharing practices may have real benefits,” the senator writes, “consumers should not be subject to a massive data collection apparatus, with any disclosures hidden in pages-long privacy policies filled with legalese. Cars should not – and cannot – become yet another venue where privacy takes a backseat.”

App creator says wipe cars’ data along with dashboards before sale

Another of Markey’s questions for car manufacturers pertains to the ability of drivers to request the deletion of their data. This concern has also occupied the entrepreneur Andrea Amico, founder of Privacy4Cars, a free app that lets users wipe their car of all the information it has absorbed, from text messages to identity data and biometrics.

In the first article of a three-part series, The Record says the app gives users access to step-by-step deletion instructions for tens of thousands of vehicles of different models, makes and years. Privacy4Cars’ website also offers privacy data reports wherein users can enter a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see what different cars collect, in an attempt to demystify small print terms and conditions that often contain language allowing automakers plenty of legal leeway.

A majority of cars with cellular connection are likely collecting phone data, says Amico, who estimates that some two-thirds of U.S. automakers declare their collection of data from synced phones. Biometrics and location data are regularly also on the menu, as is data collected from virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa or Android Auto.

Using a tool like the Privacy4Cars app, Amico says, is common sense when preparing to trade in or sell a car, citing numbers that show four out of five used cars contain the data of previous owners.

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